Wednesday, January 24, 2007

NHL: Have You Seen Me? [J. Mark English]

....The NHL belongs on a milk carton container. And heres why -

My bosses, who are die hard Ranger fans, not to mention the owners of American Legends the store, came into work this morning talking about the skills set competition that took place last night at the NHL All-Star festivities. Now I admit, that I do not follow the NHL with the same intensity I have for the NFL & MLB, but I was shocked that I was not aware that the NHL All-Star events are taking place in the middle of the week.

Why are they doing this? Why did they move the All Star weekend to a week night? And why is it not being shown on NBC? Instead it is on the little known, and almost impossible to find (its in the 400's for cablevision), cable station called Versus.

If an NHL team lost on the ice, no one would be around to hear or see it!

As the powers that be in the NHL are making bonehead decisions about what network to have their games telecast on, as well as when to move their All-Star game to a night when no one will watch, they instead focus their attention to unveiling new uniforms.

Who cares? This just in from ESPN:

After more than two years of testing and designing -- and nearly 100 different versions -- the NHL and Reebok unveiled the new uniform system that will be make its debut at the NHL All-Star game this week -- and for all 30 teams next season.

It is the biggest change to NHL uniforms since the early 1960s, when synthetic fabrics replaced the old wool jerseys.

Why not take the time they used to develop state of the art uniforms, and instead try to figure out how to get at least more then five people to watch your games.

The NHL should be able to find a niche among sports viewers. Its a fun game to watch, and if given the right publicity, and marketing, it has a chance to be a profitable sport.

But right now, the NHL is dying on the vine. Brian Biggane writes in an article titled 'Has the NHL become invisible?":

Aside from the fans in the stands, the only witnesses to tonight's NHL All-Star Game will be true believers determined to find the telecast on an obscure cable channel.

And for now at least, that seems to be OK with both the league and its main broadcast partner.

When the NHL returned in October 2005 from its year-long lockout, it ended its long association with ESPN in favor of the Outdoor Life Network.

That outlet, which can't be viewed by basic-cable subscribers in Palm Beach County unless they upgrade to digital cable, was just beginning to attract a following among hockey fans when it changed its name to Versus in September.

The NHL, hoping tonight to showcase 19-year-old superstar Sidney Crosby as well the league's sleek new uniforms, knows it is almost starting from scratch with Versus....

...So far at least, that faith is not based on ratings. Games on OLN last season had an average national rating of 0.2 - fewer than 200,000 households nationwide. The ratings are virtually unchanged for 32 telecasts this year on Versus.

The players have noticed. All-Stars questioned about the poor numbers this week said that, as excited as they are about the new, faster-paced NHL, they're equally concerned about the league's ability to attract new fans....

...The trick, of course, is attracting an audience. While Versus claims to be in 71.1 million homes - an increase, Bettman said, of more than 8 million in the past 18 months - the network said it could not say how many viewers get it through basic cable and how many have to pay additional fees to access it.

Fein said one way to increase the audience is to attract viewers to other events and then lure them to hockey, and vice versa. Other events on the Versus calendar include the Tour de France, America's Cup sailing, Mountain West college football and basketball, martial arts and rodeo.

Is this how far the NHL has fallen? That they must use the rodeo to help promote their sport? Growing up, the perception was that in American there were four major sports; baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. Now it may be safe to assume that sports like soccer, and possibly even curling have leap frogged the NHL in popularity.

Its sad that this has happened, because the game has so much to offer. I went to a Rangers game a few weeks ago, and it was a blast. The atmosphere of Madison Square Garden, the intensity of the fans, the play on the ice, the zambonis, the fights, and the whole experience was refreshing. I love hockey.

But I barely see it anymore. It really is invisible. For the sake of sport fans, I hope it finds a way to reappear. And I hope it happens soon, before its too late.

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